Big Bend National Park

The Lone Star State’s Revered National Park Is a World Unto Its Own

Terlingua is one of Texas’ most famous ghost towns — or perhaps I should say it used to be.

The southwest town perched on a hillside a few miles west of Big Bend National Park is home to crumbling adobe homes that once housed workers who mined cinnabar ore for mercury. More than 2,500 called Terlingua home in 1918, in its heyday, but the mines petered out in the 1940s, and residents dwindled to 25 by 1970.

Today, the eccentric town (population 58 at last count) boasts Saturday farmers markets, a coffee shop, rustic art galleries, craft shops and boutique lodging options. But the community’s beating heart, as I learned one balmy February afternoon, is the Starlight Theatre Restaurant and Saloon when, during happy hour, everybody who’s anybody gets together to, well, party. I’m talking banjos, fiddles, singing, clapping, hootin’, hollerin’, foot stompin’ good fun.

The tourists far outnumber the locals, as this is probably the only watering hole in a hundred miles where you’ll find a good selection of craft beers and gourmet fare like pork medallions in a chipotle reduction or tequila-marinated quail.

The Starlight was a welcome bookend to a three-day venture my dad, brother and I took down the Rio Grande in a sparsely populated expanse of the state, 300 miles from the nearest urban center and where coyotes and antelope vastly outnumber humans.

There are a handful of popular float trips on the river, which cuts a serpentine line through the desert canyons along the Mexican border. Based on your preference and experience, choose from a couple of lazy hours of inner-tubing, a week of wilderness canoeing or Class IV whitewater rafting (advanced skill level).

Numerous outfitters are clustered along Lone Star Ranch Road between Terlingua and the park entrance, where you can either book a guided trip (it’s a good idea to schedule at least two months in advance) or, for those comfortable boating and camping in the wilderness, rent a canoe or kayak and any camping gear that you don’t want to lug from your comer of the world. Jeep tours, horseback riding, guided hikes and mountain biking excursions are also avail­able.

(For those whose idea of the great outdoors is a putting green, the upscale Lajitas Golf Resort and Spa is just a half hour outside Big Bend National Park.)

big bend national park-1

Big Bend National Park

If you just want to take a driving tour through the jagged peaks and canyon- lands of the park, stop off for a few scenic vistas and a short hike to explore the mins of early 20th century outposts and otherworldly desert flora that character­ize the region. For a map and some rangerly advice, start at one of the three visitor centers within the park; this is also where you can pick up camping, fishing and boating permits, which in most cases you must do in person.

The privately run Chisos Mountains Lodge, located in the park’s high-elevation interior where summer temperatures are a bit more manageable (highs in the 80s, on aver­age), is the only lodging within Big Bend. Weather-wise, spring and fall are the best times to visit, though winter temperatures in the lowlands are quite amiable, with highs in the 60s and lows in the 30s.

Our group opted to canoe the postcard- perfect Santa Elena Canyon, where cliffs plunge 1,500 feet into churning blue-green water. This stretch is known for serious whitewater when water levels are high, but much of the time it’s a leisurely float, with one Class III rapid (intermediate skill level) that we chose to skirt in the calm water close to shore.

mariscal canyon canoeing

Mariscal Canyon canoeing

The river, despite its location in extremely rugged and remote terrain, can get crowded with boaters during spring break season, though in late February we didn’t see a soul in three days.

As a friend said before I left for Texas, “Marfa is the only place 1 know of where you might see a cowboy riding the street on horseback one minute, and spot Johnny Depp seated in a cafe the next.”
after mile of purple lupine in full bloom and the undulating turns of the canyon, sculpted into breathtaking art by the passage of time.

The rugged Ernst Tinaja campsite

The rugged Ernst Tinaja campsite

If you’re coming to Big Bend from El Paso, it’s a five-hour drive down some very lonely, tumbleweed-strewn highways (six hours from San Antonio), but there are a few cultural oases along the way, including a small Prada store with high heels and luxury handbags on Highway 90 in what appears to be the middle of nowhere. In reality, this is not a functioning store, but an art installation, and a sign that you are nearing the town of Marfa — a global arts outpost made famous by the late minimalist Donald Judd and now frequented by Hollywood types and throngs of tourists.

Marfa is roughly midway between Big Bend and El Paso, so it’s a natural place to break up the trek. Consider a room at the ultra-chic Hotel Saint George if you feel like rubbing elbows with the artsy crowd; the El Paisano Hotel is the spot if you’re in the mood for Old West flavor. Beyonce opted for rustic on her trip to Marfa, holing up in one of the Airstream trailers at the El Cosmico campground on the edge of town, where one can also rent a Mongolian yurt or Sioux-style tepee.

Whether you spot any celebrities or not, southwest Texas has an uncanny knack for making you feel as though you are traveling from one movie set to another.